essay: canberra

You know you’re a local when...

“So, how does it feel, being back in civilisation?”

While Melburnian at heart, the Canberran in me couldn’t help but feel affronted. I let it slide but complained about it later. With friends who actually live in Canberra.

I don’t mind if people complain about Canberra but only if they’ve lived here. People who haven’t, shouldn't.”

A report by the OECD last year found Canberra the top ranking ‘region’ in terms of well-being worldwide. The headlines declaring our city ‘the best place to live in the world’ were debated, as usual. 

The New York Times featured a story on 36 Hours in Canberra, Australia which said:

...what the “bush capital” lacks in big-city tousle, it makes up for in big-sky beauty, breezy civic pride and a decidedly hipster underbelly.

(I couldn’t help posting the article on Facebook with the caption ‘Aww...’ though I’ve also read others which refer to ‘Canberra, the Australian capital’. Oh, the irony...)

I’ve always lived in the inner south so one might ask how much of the ‘real Canberra’ I’ve seen. Everyone's experience of Canberra will be different. This is mine.

I was told three things about Canberra.
     1.  It’s cold.
     2.  It’s boring.
     3.  It’s a good place to raise kids.

I’m yet to experience a ‘proper Canberra winter’ (the last two have been relatively mild) and believe a place is as boring as you make it. Sure, Canberra has less dining / live music options than Melbourne and Sydney but then, Canberra will never be either of the two. So stop comparing, please. (As for raising kids, I haven’t gotten to that yet.)

Yes, some stereotypes are true.

All my friends (and I) are public servants. And there are a lot of roundabouts.

Things are conveniently close but late night shopping is only on Friday. And clubs are close to non-existent. (Fortunately, I’ve never been into clubbing.)

No doubt, Canberra is comfortable. Sometimes, even a little too comfortable... 

It’s a good place to live but for bright, restless young things, there eventually comes a day to cut ties. Of the 24 grads in my cohort (2013), 17 remain in Canberra.

I remember reading the historical display at Gorman House, thinking about the young people who came to work here in the 1920s and how my experience mirrors theirs. The ‘tyranny of distance’ still holds though somewhat lessened with technology and flights.

Cosy but claustrophobic. Smug yet defensive.

Like all cities, Canberra has its charms, quirks and downsides.

We’ll rarely get ‘big international acts’ in town (Groovin’ The Moo being the exception) but at least here, you can arrive halfway through the second supporting act and still stake a spot at the security railing.

Luckily for me, my favourite cafés and restaurants opened in the past few years or so. Lonsdale St and NewActon (my favourite ‘precincts’) continue to evolve. And if I ever want to get away from it all, the Arboretum and lake are there... waiting.

And I love the gorgeously niche (but growing!) festivals including Enlighten, Art Not Apart and Hustle&Scout market. Annual events like the National Multicultural Festival, Skyfire and Floriade are not just ‘Canberra traditions’ but markers of time...

A place where people come and go, Canberra is not ‘forever’ for many.

But for now at least, it is home.


  1. This right here is amazing. And oh so true. I still get people looking at me awe struck when I admit how much I loved Canberra. It's so hard for them to comprehend that, like everything in life, something is what you make it and what you put in you will get back. And this post right here, is why we get along so well. So glad you are my friend!

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